Thursday, July 7, 2011

Skull surfaces

Presbyterian widow Julia Martha Thomas lived just 90m from a pub called the Hole in the Wall in the Richmond area of South London. She hired heavy-drinking Irish-born Kate Webster (3rd image), a former thief and prostitute, as a housekeeper. Webster intimidated Thomas with her size and temper, and they were heard to argue. Only 2 months after Webster came to work for her, Mrs. Thomas resolved to fire Webster and promptly disappeared. The housekeeper explained away her absence, sold off her belongings, and fled. In actuality, she had murdered her employer by throwing her down the stairs and strangling her. Webster dismembered the body, packed it in a box, and threw it into the river. The box washed up on the shore of the Thames near Barnes Bridge. Police were able to identify the victim even though her head was missing. Rumors spread that the murderess had boiled the body to make it easier to cut up, and had fed the "drippings" to 2 boys who ate it, believing it to be pig's lard. Webster was found wearing Mrs. Thomas' clothes and jewels. She was convicted and finally confessed, "We had an argument which ripened into a quarrel, and in the height of my anger and rage I threw her from the top of the stairs to the ground floor. She had a heavy fall. I felt that she was seriously injured and I became agitated at what had happened, lost all control of myself and to prevent her screaming or getting me into trouble, I caught her by the throat and in the struggle choked her." Webster claimed to be pregnant to avoid execution, but was found to be lying and was hanged in 1879 at Wandsworth prison in London.

Flash forward 132 years to the garden (1st image) of British broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough (watch clips here). Now retired, 85-year-old Attenborough (2nd image, observing a golden frog) decided to add an extension to his £1.5million West London home. During the excavation (photo here) of an old pub in the garden, contractors discovered human remains and reported it to the authorities. A skull was handed over to the University of Edinburgh for examination. Physical anthropologists determined that it belonged to an edentulous white female of roughly menopausal age and displayed fracture marks consistent with a fall down some stairs. Testing of the damaged skull (photo here) revealed that the woman died between 1650 and 1880, and that she ate a lot of fish. Collagen levels showed that her skull had been boiled. Matching the evidence with census records of the time, West London Coroner Alison Thompson confirmed that the remains were those of Julia Martha Thomas, who had died at the age of 55 from asphyxiation and a head injury. A total of 132 years after the crime, Thompson delivered a verdict of unlawful killing. No family of Mrs. Thomas could be traced, but she can now be given a proper burial. "This is a fascinating case and a good example of how good old-fashioned detective work, historical records and technological advances came together to solve the 'Barnes mystery,'" said Clive Chalk, chief superintendent of Scotland Yard.

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